Why Obama Underestimated ISIL in Syria and Iraq

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This post first appeared at Informed Comment.

President Obama in 60 Minutes (Photo:Screenshot from 60 Minutes)
President Obama on 60 Minutes (Photo:Screenshot from 60 Minutes)

President Obama admitted on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday that the US had underestimated the military potential of ISIL.

Obama understands that a generational struggle is going on in the Middle East, but some of his comments in the interview seemed to me to show insufficient appreciation for the true nature of the generational crisis — something that I have just written a book about (The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East)

At one point in the interview, Obama lays out what he thinks the underlying problems are:

“They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of the solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root.”

This point of view is just old-fashioned modernization theory, and I think it puts the cart before the horse. It depicts Iraqi and Syrian youth as putting sectarian considerations before ones of rational economic well-being. I don’t believe this is an accurate characterization of what has happened. That Obama sees these Arab young men as merely acting irrationally, and that he doesn’t seem to understand the profound crisis of joblessness behind the turmoil, helps explain why ISIL surprised him and his intelligence officials.

The fact is that in Syria, the 2011 revolution was initially precisely about “jobs.” Syrian young men were forced off their farms in droves in the zeroes because of a long-term drought that was likely caused by global warming, i.e. by people burning gas and oil for decades before, throughout the world. The now unemployed young farmers went to cities like Homs, Hama and Deraa, where they settled in slums circling the city. They hoped to get construction work and day labor, but the 2008 global financial crash hurt that prospect. The first demonstrations against the regime were by day laborers in the slums around these cities.

In the old days of the 1970s, the ruling Baath Party in Syria had been very good at irrigation works, and Sunni and Christian farmers in Deraa and its hinterland were the strongest Baathists (Arab nationalists and socialists). Deraa even produced a high-ranking general in the regime. But by the zeroes, international pressure to privatize and introduce market mechanisms had turned the attentions of the high Baath functionaries toward making themselves billionaires, not expending resources for poor rural Sunni farmers. Family members of the ruling al-Assads gained control of the credit card business telcos, and many other lucrative new businesses, enriching themselves beyond their wildest dreams. It so happened that many of them derived from the Alawite Shiite minority, but it wasn’t their religious ethnicity that angered the protesters.

So these Syrian youth were demanding jobs, jobs that had been taken from them by carbon-spewing Americans and Chinese, and by a corrupt Neoliberalism. Only when the regime dealt with the 2011 protests by drawing up tanks and firing on peaceful protesters, and by stationing snipers on rooftops, did the protesters gradually take up arms. As the conflict turned into civil war, paramilitary and political forces often began appealing to sectarian identity as a way of mobilizing people, getting them to fight or to be afraid of the Other. Over time people began outbidding one another in sectarian brutality as guerrilla groups competed for popularity among urban populations being barrel-bombed by the regime (increasingly coded as an Alawite “Shiite” regime).

America’s New War in the Middle East

This growing religious extremism was fueled by the Wahhabi states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia — US allies going back to the Cold War when all were afraid of workers and the Left – which sent in money to the most puritanical of the guerrilla groups, while the secular and leftist moderates languished without much monetary support. Saudi Arabia’s ideal model is fanatical, puritanical religion that is unthinkingly loyal to the Saudi monarchy and the Arab Establishment. Riyadh keeps being surprised when the extremists it promotes tend to turn populist and revolutionary instead of quietist. It is the same surprise the US keeps getting when it spreads “market forces” that create ever greater extremes of wealth and then the ungrateful immiserated workers and unemployed rise up against the Neoliberal Establishment. Ideologies that are tame at the center are often radical when adopted on the peripheries.

The origins of the conflict weren’t in sectarianism as Obama alleged. Those identity politics came later. The origins of the conflict in many ways were just sketched by Naomi Klein in her book, This Changes Everything, about how Neoliberal forms of capitalism aren’t good at dealing with climate change.

Nor are Syrian youth particularly poorly educated, certainly compared to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The French had been studiedly uninterested in making sure all the Syrians they colonized (1920-1940s) got an education. But one thing nationalist governments are good at is spreading education. According to Trading Economics the “literacy rate; youth total (% of people ages 15-24) in Syria was last measured at 94% in 2009, according to the World Bank.” Of course, being literate is not the same thing as having an analytical education. Syria was isolated and under US economic sanctions, which harmed education as it harmed other sectors. Obama must know this, but does not mention it.

Likewise, Obama seems unaware that long before Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister of Iraq in 2006, the United States had cooperated with hard line Shiites in imposing severe unemployment on the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Right from 2003, “debaathification,” the dissolution of the Iraqi Army and the deliberate destruction of state factories, all policies of the US government, threw over half of Sunni Arabs out of work. The discontents of Sunni Arabs in the first instance were this US-imposed unemployment and downward mobility. Al-Maliki merely continued the punitive policies of Paul Bremer in this regard.

Unlike in Syria, in Iraq the educational achievements of nationalist governments were reversed in the 1990s by very severe US and international sanctions, causing literacy rates actually to fall. These same sanctions destroyed the Iraq middle classes and denied the country chlorine for water purification, leading to the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s. As with Syria, Iraqis did not begin by fighting over sectarian identity, but were mobilized by politicians and paramilitaries into those identities over time once the US invasion caused a political vacuum and groups sought to step into it.

Obama gets it right that ISIL is a political problem, not primarily a military one. But he gets it wrong that it is rooted in primordial identity politics. It was the US that destroyed the Arab Left during the Cold War and after, and which created the conditions under which the religious Right provided peoples’ politics.

Nor can Obama’s air and drone strikes in Syria actually hold at bay the forces unleashed by Neoliberalism and fossil fuel-driven climate change, as he asserts. Rather, they will likely further polarize these populations and make ISIL popular. Imperialism, having created many of the problems of the modern Middle East, isn’t usually the answer to them.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, blogger and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He blogs regularly at Informed Comment. Follow him on Twitter: @jricole.
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